The art of appealing to powerful incumbents
Steve Randy Waldman is critical of Ezra Klein’s overview of the Obama’s administration’s successes and failures in its response to the financial crisis. Waldman labels the piece “far too sympathetic,” but it’s tough to figure out his preferred alternative when he writes things like this:
Klein shrugs off the error as though it were inevitable, predestined. It was not. The administration screwed up, and they screwed up in a deeply toxic way. They defined “politically possible” to mean acceptable to powerful incumbents, and then restricted their policy advocacy to the realm of that possible.
Waldman fails to offer an alternative definition of “politically possible,” though he is critical of the administration’s willingness to “placate groups whose interests were opposed to good policy” instead of fighting for the most effective policies, and, in Mike Konczal’s words, “losing well.” Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, it seems likely that groups opposed to good policy mainly means centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate, a group without whom the administration’s list of first term achievements would be looking awfully paltry right now. Klein does a good job of detailing the problems of presenting a sufficient stimulus to Congress:
Critics and defenders on the left make the same point: The stimulus was too small. The administration underestimated the size of the recession, so it follows that any policy to combat it would be too small. On top of that, it had to get that policy through Congress. So it went with $800 billion — what Romer thought the economy could get away with — rather than $1.2 trillion — what she thought it needed. Then the Senate watered the policy down to about $700 billion. Compare that with the $2.5 trillion hole we now know we needed to fill.
But it is hard to credit the argument that the stimulus could have been much larger at the outset. This was already the biggest stimulus in U.S. history, and congressional leaders had been quite clear with the White House: Don’t send over anything that passes the trillion-dollar mark. To try and double the bill’s size based on a suspicion that the recession was much worse than the early data indicated would have been a hard sell, to say the least.
Even if Congress had been more accommodating, there was a challenge to vastly increasing the size of the initial stimulus: The more you spend, the less effective each new dollar would become.
Passed before the Democrats had a 60-vote majority, the stimulus depended on the votes of not just conservative-leaning Democrats like Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu, but also on Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Spector. The Republican Party’s constant filibuster strategy made every Senate vote on nearly every piece of legislation in the 111th Congress critical, giving each individual Senator – all of whom have specific pet projects, home state industries, etc. – an upper hand on the President.
The reason for the overlap between “politically possible” and “acceptable to powerful incumbents” is that in order for a piece of legislation to enter the realm of political possibility, it needs people willing to vote for it. In a surprising feature of our political system, these people are often incumbents, and many could even be described as powerful! Waldman doesn’t offer a method to circumvent that pesky “getting people in Congress to vote for your legislation” issue of governing, it seems that Waldman wishes the administration had spent less energy attempting to pass legislation and more energy taking noble public stands that, in addition to resulting in a lack of actual legislative accomplishments, would also help alienate President Obama from crucial Senate swing votes and cement his reputation as an ineffectual leader.